WORDS Leroy Wallace
Are you having a grim January? Do you struggle to get out of bed in the mornings? Do the cold and darkness make you feel bad to be alive? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions you aren’t alone. When polled, around a third of British adults reported some worsening of mood when the nights draw in. Whilst that poll was conducted by the unlikely experts at The Weather Channel, other medical specialists (who don’t spend all day stood in front of an animated map) agree that between 6% and 15% of us experience a tangible darkening of the soul in the colder, darker months of the year.
For some people these seasonal blues take expected forms – lack of energy, eating more, needing extra sleep – but for the less fortunate the winter brings major challenges to our mood and wellbeing. It’s often referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately shortened to SAD, and is thought to be triggered in part by decreased exposure to natural light. People who live further away from the equator, like us Northern Europeans, tend to be most affected – so spare a thought for those people enduring months of darkness because they live too close to the Arctic circle. I’m no reindeer but I’ve struggled with depression my whole adult life, and it’s always been a challenge knowing that the arrival of winter can trigger off some of my blackest moods. I am happy today though, not only because I don’t live in a snow forest in Murmansk, but because help is available to minimise the impact of this accursed darkness.
Sadness is not weakness
The first thing you should understand about depression is that it’s real, it’s natural, and that it affects far more people than you’d think. Unlike other forms of illness there still exists a taboo in speaking publicly about it, which is strange because battling through a period of depression can require a huge amount of internal strength. Yet people still tend to keep those battles to themselves, perhaps worrying that they will be perceived as weak or unreliable if they open up about their emotions. This is often worse for seasonal depressives, as our icy winter hearts get laughed off because nobody wants to get out of bed in February, and most people would prefer to be somewhere warmer. The jokes aren’t helpful when dragging yourself out of bed feels like pulling your body out of wet concrete, and leaving work after sundown makes us legitimately terrified we’ll never experience heat and light again. What is helpful is to accept that your problem is real, take some medical advice, and experiment with taking some small steps that could make winter a little more bearable.
Bad advice about depression is everywhere you look. Although certain foods might make you feel better in general, they won’t address underlying problems with your mood. Your “energy” isn’t “out of alignment”, and no amount of massage or stretching will cure a recurrent psychological problem. You probably won’t “pull yourself together.” This bad advice gets repeated by well-meaning friends and family, to the point that I have days where if one more person tells me to cheer up or eat broccoli I might transform into a moody winter werewolf and bite their heads off. Anybody who thinks their mind might be getting on top of them should first speak to somebody who can give impartial, objective advice. This is usually your GP but could also be somebody connected to a proper mental health charity, like Mind. They’ll help you work out what steps to take next, which might involve a referral to a specialist counsellor. What they won’t do is tell you to get over it, or that you’re wasting their time with something trivial. Sometimes the process or finding the right help can take a little while, so in the meantime there are some steps you can take to improve things for yourself.
Healthy eating and exercise won’t fix everything but they are important, mainly because they help regulate your circadian rhythms. These are the mental and behavioural changes that run in sync with your day and night cycle. It’s thought that the shorter winter days play havoc with these rhythms in some people, causing the body to produce hormones and other brain chemicals (scientific term!) at the wrong times. This probably explains why I wake up foul-tempered and exhausted in winter, no matter what time I go to bed, but can still easily stay up til 2AM. However, if I try and achieve things during daylight, or with least exercise in the early evening before an easy-to digest meal, I get a better night’s sleep and wake up in a slightly improved mood. Another thing that helps is practising good ”sleep hygiene” – too detailed to explain here, but for me a lot of it boils down to avoiding stimulation too late at night, and particularly not indulging in phones or tablets before bed.
Sunshine in a box
The thing about screens is more significant than you think, because for many people the treatment that most helps with seasonal affective disorder does involve glowing blue light, but also sounds like the type of bad hippy advice I was complaining about earlier. It’s called light therapy, and it works on the principle that you can replace some of the sunlight you miss out on by virtue of being inside in a darkened office for the whole of your daylight hours. This works (at least for some of us) because sunlight isn’t magical or “nourishing” compared to office lightbulbs, it’s just a different frequency and has a correspondingly different effect on our brain parts. Light therapy attempts to replicate the effect of sunlight, usually with an inexpensive lamp that sits on your table and makes you feel like you’re staring into a vending machine or laboratory fridge. You need to use it for around 45 minutes a day. Sunbeds can also help, just be careful you don’t go too orange or you’ll go all the way from depressed to Donald Trump, and that’s the last thing anybody needs.
Some of these strategies will be more helpful to some seasonal depressives than others, but the thing they all have in common is that they involve some small steps to take charge of your environment and routine. You’ll never change the fact that it’s dark and cold in the winter but you might be able to change the extent to which it has an impact on your everyday life. Just remember that you’re far from alone, and you have friends at The Weather Channel who feel your pain. Joking aside – If you think you’re having trouble with your moods, speak to your GP, or look up Mind Jersey at www.mindjersey.orh or the Jersey Recovery College at www.recovery.je. You’ll find a lot of good practical advice. If you think your problems might be more serious, talk to a doctor straight away or call the Samaritans on 116123.